Opportunities for Writers
November 6, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

How likely is it that writer A contacts an agent with a writing idea, which the agent rejects from writer A but then encourages writer B, who agent knows, to write it?

I wondered, with the tightness in the freelance market, if writers were becoming less trusting of agents or editors to develop their ideas. And I wondered if they suspected those agents and editors of passing those pretty good ideas onto writers they've already worked with and whose writing they already know? Does anyone know if this happens? And if so, what can the writer do? Send more queries? Develop more of their own personal relationships with editors and agents?
posted by CollectiveMind to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Most people who have worked professionally in publishing understands that a good idea isn't actually worth all that much. Being able to execute an idea well, and on a deadline, is what makes a marketable writer.

In my experience, professional writers don't really worry about this sort of thing.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:02 PM on November 6, 2011 [13 favorites]

Yeah, ideas are a dime a dozen, in pretty much any creative industry. Even if someone else does write it, it'd end up being a completely different book than the first persons'.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:10 PM on November 6, 2011

I have heard the following story from one writer who I trust:

Writer A worked with Agent B for some time to develop a particular story. Agent B ultimately declined to represent Writer A. Writer A found another agent, got published. Agent B then wrote an extremely similar story and published it pseudonymously.

Both of their extremely similar books ended up doing quite well, with some murmurings of "isn't one just a ripoff of the other?" but both books came out so close to each other that it looks like a coincidence.

The vast majority of agents are not total scuzzballs and I still think the odds of this happening are in the "getting struck by lightning" range, but I think that the publishing industry's current pursuit of the high concept idea and the trend-of-the-moment encourages this kind of thing.
posted by Jeanne at 1:21 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're talking about non-fiction, the vast majority of journalistic freelancers don't have or use agents. That's really only for the biggest of the big leagues, and when you're playing in that kind of league, your name on the piece is probably worth as much as the piece itself.

If you're talking about fiction, there is virtually no real money-making market for short stories left anymore - at least, not so's 'freelancing' would be a good way to think about it, and the odds of an agent having two significant, similar, short-fiction writers is long, to say nothing of the odds that one writer would take queues from their agents about stories to write, especially stories from another writer.

Finally, precluding all of that, this is the kind of conversation - in freelancing, at any rate - you have with editors, not agents. If you pitch a piece to an editor, they might go with someone else to write it, but really, ideas are a dime a dozen, and generally when you pitch pieces you're not merely offering yourself as a scribe, but as someone with special knowledge or access or research that another writer might not come up with. You're pitching a unique product - the piece as written by you - not the idea for a product, if that makes sense.

I find that people new to the whole writing gig are often very protective of their ideas, but I tell you it's a false economy. Ideas are cheap; execution is hard. Ostensibly, there is little to separate a classic Donald Westlake novel from a million other shitty crime novels - same plots, same characters; the idea is exactly the same - but they are worlds apart in the reading. Conversely, you can have a brilliant high concept piece, but if the writing is shit, it really doesn't amount to a hill of beans.
posted by smoke at 1:23 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

If they like the idea, they'll usually give you first crack at the piece given that you have presumably done some legwork/lifting/research/thinking about it rather than tossing it at another writer completely cold, in my experience.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:31 PM on November 6, 2011

In addition to ideas being cheap, a lot of ideas that sound really...dull can make for fascinating reading in the hands of the right writer. So if you, unknown-to-agent/editor freelancer, calls up and pitches an idea about trucks and shipping, agent/editor will probably go "No" even if your pitch is good. If John McPhee says "I'm going to write about trucks and shipping," his agent goes "Yes!"
posted by rtha at 1:32 PM on November 6, 2011

What everyone is saying above about writing is certainly true, but it is also the case that the fear of "idea theft" lawsuits is such that agents go out of their way not to take pitches on ideas. People land their first agents because of work that they did or sold unagented, which comes to the attention of an agent who sees the work or (more likely) hears about it from someone whom the agent knows and trusts.

There are creative fields where idea theft, in a certain sense, happens a heck of lot more. You make a pitch to provide professional services (advertising, sales strategy, legal services for a big case, architecture what have you) you are nearly certain to be offering some pretty detailed proposals for solutions or approaches to the problem. You know that there's a more than fair chance that some of them will find their way into the way that the client ends of having the work done, even if he hires your competitor to do it. But you don't sue -- it's a cost of doing business.
posted by MattD at 3:08 PM on November 6, 2011

What everyone is saying above about writing is certainly true, but it is also the case that the fear of "idea theft" lawsuits is such that agents go out of their way not to take pitches on ideas. People land their first agents because of work that they did or sold unagented, which comes to the attention of an agent who sees the work or (more likely) hears about it from someone whom the agent knows and trusts.

This is not how getting an agent for fiction works. In order to get an agent, the vast majority of fiction writers will pitch their (fully written) novel idea to agents via snail or email. Selling work unagented is very, very rare in today's fiction marketplace.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:37 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

As to how you can protect yourself, I think this question deserves a two-pronged answer. What you're talking about isn't illegal, for the reasons detailed above (can't copyright an idea, etc.), but it is of dubious ethical value. Agents who are shady in one way are often also shady in other ways. So you want to check to see if the agents are members of the Associate of Authors' Representatives, and thus held to their canon of ethics. Are the agents listed on Preditors and Editors as "recommended"? Are they listed on the querytracker database? Have you looked them up on Absolute Write? Any warning signs at all--any signs of dubious dealings in the past? Get a publishers marketplace membership for a month. Does the agent have sales? How many of those sales are by debut authors? Do a basic google search, too (searching more than just a few months back), and be sure to check writer beware. You never know what will come up.

The second way to defend yourself is to befriend other writers--preferably those further along in their publishing journeys. Go to workshops, conferences, hang out on places like absolutewrite. Talk to people. Behind closed doors, many authors are more than willing to discuss agents--and will gladly steer you away from the shady sort. We like to protect one another. Really.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:03 PM on November 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sneaky chef vs. . Jessica Seinfeld.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:33 PM on November 6, 2011

These thoughts and opinions are very helpful. Thank you, all.
posted by CollectiveMind at 7:09 AM on November 7, 2011

I'm a newspaper editor. I've had freelancers pitch stories that reporters were already working on, or that they were clearly not capable of executing and that fell onto a reporter's beat, and I've certainly let the reporter stick with the story instead of giving it to the freelancer.

I feel marginally bad when a freelancer pitches a story that we do ourselves, but I don't have much money to pay freelancers, and sussing out their skills, fact checking and editing their work, handling their invoices, and tracking payments is a pain in the butt. Most of the time we're either going to do a story in-house or it's not gonna get done. I will make exceptions for strong freelance writers/reporters who've proven their chops, but most people who fall into that category want to work for somebody who can pay them more.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:44 PM on January 19, 2012

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